BILL MICHELMORE; News Niagara Bureau
November 28, 1999
DATELINE: NIAGARA FALLS
A power struggle is heating up in Niagara
County between members of a laborers local and the forces of nonunion
construction, and some observers say Niagara County is already
the big loser.
Public officials and principals of nonunion
construction companies claim a long record of high costs and intimidation
by some members of Laborers Local 91 scares away development in
A lawyer for the laborers union said reports
of violence by union members are overblown.
"The numbers of cases of violence, even
claimed violence, is minuscule," said Eugene S. Salisbury
of the Buffalo law firm of Lipsitz, Green, Fahringer, Roll, Salisbury
But there is a well-documented history of
violence by some of the nearly 700 members of the laborers union,
according to law enforcement officials. That violence includes
charges o assaults, inciting riots, tire slashings and other acts
of vandalism, law enforcement officials said.
"We steer clear of Niagara County because
of the potential for violence," said Fred Boheim, owner of
Gypsum Systems, a nonunion construction company in Elma.
Nonunion contractors also cited several other
reasons to stay away from Niagara County, including the poor economy
and lower population. But the reputation of union members is
frequently a deciding element, they said.
"I can't think of a single factor more
detrimental to development in Niagara County than the actions"
of some members of Local 91, said Ted Van Deusen, a contractor
who hires only nonunion workers and said intimidation from union
members drove him out of the county.
"Many developers who tried to do business
in Niagara County 10 or 20 years ago encountered a lot of labor
problems, and there's still that perception," said James
J. Allen, executive director of the Amherst Industrial Development
Agency. "But I think over time, Niagara County can and will
What does all this mean in a region that
generally has labor peace on such projects as the Ralph Wilson
Stadium renovation and Buffalo Niagara International Airport construction?
Some developers pay more than $100,000 for
an acre of land in Amherst, rather than pay $15,000 an acre for
similar land just across the Niagara County line in Wheatfield.
Construction permits in all of Niagara County
last year totaled $53.8 million, compared with $90 million in
Amherst alone, which has a similar population.
Recently, to ensure the safety of his workers
and equipment on a project in Niagara County employing union and
nonunion workers, one owner surrounded the site with an 8-foot-high
barbed wire fence and hired armed guards and guard dogs around
"We had extra concerns on that construction
site," said Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein.
He said his deputies kept a close watch and
averted any trouble. Beilein said union officials have told him
they sometimes cannot control the actions of their members when
anger erupts on the work site.
"We do respond, and we do make arrests
when warranted," Beilein said.
Last year, a union steward for Laborers Local
91 was charged with assault and inciting to riot after police
said he led an attack on six union bricklayers during construction
of a Wegmans supermarket on Military Road.
Police said about a dozen laborers assaulted
the men, all members of Bricklayers Local 45, because they were
cleaning up their work area, a job the laborers said only they
should have done. Four of the bricklayers were sent to the hospital,
and two couldn't return to work.
The persistent reputation has been built
up by other incidents over the past decade:
Faery's Landscaping of Ransomville, a nonunion
contractor, in September withdrew its $ 50,665 bid to landscape
a park on Main Street because of potential union problems, it
was reported in The Buffalo News.
A carpenter working on the new Niagara Falls
High School was sent to Kenmore Mercy Hospital last March after
police said he was attacked by members of Local 91 for sweeping
a floor to prepare for his job, work the laborers said they should
The carpenter, who didn't want to give his
name, is back on the job but said he's extra careful around the
"I'm watching my back," he said.
During the spring 1998 renovation of the
former Clarion Hotel, now the Holiday Inn Select, police said
Local 91 pickets protesting the hiring of nonunion workers injured
a truck driver, slashed car tires and punctured others by throwing
spikes on Rainbow Boulevard, and blocked a tourist bus from leaving
Union members picketed the construction sites
of the Yellow Goose Market and Ted's Jumbo Red Hots in Lockport
two years ago, where Mulvey Construction Co., which used a nonunion
construction company, was working.
Windows were shattered, and the home of Timothy
Mulvey, the owner of the construction company was picketed so
heavily that a State Supreme Court judge had to issue an order
to keep union members away.
Earlier that year, three members of Local
91 were arrested after damaging contractors' property at the Niagara
Falls Air Reserve Base. The previous March, also at the air base,
state police arrested a member of the local after a car was damaged
during a protest over the use of out-of-town construction workers
at the base.
No one at the union offices, at 2556 Seneca
Ave., including business manager Michael Quarcini, returned repeated
calls seeking comment on the union's view of the builders' and
Salisbury, however, denied that violence
is prevalent among the local's members.
Quarcini does believe in a strong union for
laborers and workers' rights, his attorney said.
"He's a hell of a fighter for workers'
rights," said Salisbury.
More than 10 years ago, Van Deusen, who started
as a carpenter, was a project supervisor with Grande Construction
of Niagara Falls, the only nonunion general contractor in Niagara
County. Van Deusen, who grew up in Niagara County, hasn't worked
in the county since a day in 1987 when he was confronted by five
men while working on a project to build homes for Cerebral Palsy
Association and told to "go union."
He's currently project manager for an Erie
County construction company, but said he wants to be able work
in his native county. That's one of the reasons he's speaking
out now. "I'm fed up with these thugs," said Van Deusen.
"The only way Niagara Falls can move ahead and develop is
to get rid of the union problem. Someone has to strip them of
Van Deusen said he has taken out a $1 million
life insurance policy since criticizing the union.
"I pray that in speaking out, I have
not put my family, friends or fellow tradespeople in harm's way,"
Van Deusen said. "The fear that Laborers Local 91 instills
in nonunion and union tradespeople alike is as real as the dilapidated
condition of downtown Niagara Falls."
Contractors large and small say they have
been scared off by the threats and outright violence of some members
of Laborers Local 91.
Union members, however, level charges of
their own against the nonunion construction companies. Union lawyer
Salisbury says the nonunion builders are attacking Local 91 because
of labor costs.
"It's not because of the violence (that
the nonunion contractors stay away)," said Salisbury. "It's
because of their reluctance to pay union wages and benefits."
The average pay for a union construction
worker last year was $790 a week, compared to $ 496 for a nonunion
worker, according to economist Diane Herz of the state Department
of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The higher pay reflects the superior training
and skills of union workers, said Clyde Johnston, the president
of the Niagara County Building Trades Council, which represents
5,000 workers in 17 unions in both Niagara and Erie counties.
"Nonunion contractors are looking for
cheap labor and often bring in workers from outside the county,"
Johnston said. "We always use local labor. That's what we're
fighting for -- to keep the work here."
Nonunion contractors, however, said union
pay scales -- twice that of nonunion -- and the limited competition
among bidders can drive up a project's cost by at least 30 percent.
There also are some Erie County contractors
who use union labor and say they have no problems with Laborers
"We have a good working relationship
with the Laborers Local and all unions," said Gary Bichler,
president of Louis P. Ciminelli Construction Co. Inc.
But comparisons of costs demonstrate their
case, nonunion contractors said.
Boheim's nonunion drywall construction company
worked on a Wal-Mart in Clarence in Erie County, while union labor
built an identical Wal-Mart in Lockport. The cost of the Lockport
construction was 38 percent more than the one in Clarence, with
most of the higher costs attached to the labor, Boheim said.
Building materials cost less in Niagara County
because of the county's 7 percent sales tax, which is 1 percentage
point lower than in Erie County.
When a large commercial project in Erie County
is put to a bid, there are typically 10 to 15 bidders from both
open-shop and union contractors, Van Deusen said. A similar project
in Niagara County will only have two to five bids, all from union
contractors, Boheim confirmed.
Construction jobs that allow nonunion and
union contractors to bid on the project are more competitive,
which brings the cost down, builders said. The more shops that
bid, the lower the price. Van Deusen, who is director of the National
Association of Merit Tradespeople, said this fact alone will eventually
bury the unions.
Van Deusen said 85 percent of the tradespeople
in Western New York today are nonunion.
That figure is supported by national statistics
that last year put the percentage of nonunion workers at 86 percent,
according to Abraham Mosisa, an economist with the Bureau of Labor
In New York State, 73 percent of workers
are nonunion, said the bureau's supervisory economist Howard Hayghe.
The nonunion companies say all they want
is a fair shake.
"Opening up Niagara County to competitive
bidding from nonunion contractors will open a floodgate of development
and construction," said Van Deusen. "The stream of morning
rush hour traffic over the Grand Island Bridge would change dramatically
from southbound to northbound."
Non-union contractor Ted Deusen says he no
longer works in Niagara County because of intimidation by some